September 24, 1996
Contact: Lew Harris (615) 322-2706

Lawson to receive Distinguished Alumnus Award

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Rev. James M. Lawson, a long-time civil rights activist, has been selected to receive the Vanderbilt Divinity School's Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Lawson will be honored with the award at the annual Divinity School Alumni/Alumnae Council luncheon scheduled for noon Friday, Oct. 25, at the University Club. Afterward, he will deliver a public lecture at 2 p.m. in Benton Chapel. Lawson was selected to receive the award by both the Alumni/Alumnae Council and the Divinity School faculty, said Dean Joseph C. Hough.

"Among Vanderbilt alumni, none have contributed more than James Lawson to the task of keeping before the public the important issues of national and international justice and peace," Hough said. "He also has had distinguished ministries in churches in Tennessee and California and is widely recognized as one of the great preachers of our time."

Lawson, now 68 and a Methodist pastor in Los Angeles, utilized nonviolent protests in an effort to stop downtown Nashville segregation at lunch counters in the early 1960's while a Vanderbilt Divinity School student. As a result of his activities, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt University in 1960.

"For me the two fine years I studied at Vanderbilt far outweighed my expulsion by the trustees," Lawson said. "Hence the expulsion came as a surprise, but it did not cause me to break kinship with Vanderbilt. The Distinguished Alumnus Award allows all of us to move full circle. It is one more vindication of that kinship and of the good work we sought to do in that most remarkable movement. In this I rejoice."

The Ohio native had learned about pacifism and nonviolent strategies of social change during high school and college. Later, while working as a missionary, campus minister and coach in India from 1953-56, he honed his understanding with continued Ghandi studies. He brought his nonviolent tactics to the Nashville student movement and taught students how to challenge the prevailing laws that refused food service to blacks at downtown stores. His nonviolent tactics were widely imitated in civil rights action throughout the nation.

Lawson's expulsion from the University triggered threats of resignation from many members of the Divinity School faculty who were later joined by many other professors from both the University and the Medical School, resulting in national headlines.

Lawson was allowed to receive his Bachelor of Divinity degree either by transfer of credit or by written examinations but without readmission. He elected to complete his Bachelor of Divinity degree at Boston University but returned to Vanderbilt on a sabbatical at the Divinity School in 1971.

Though not as well known as some of his cohorts, Lawson was a leading figure in the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Lawson the foremost non-violent theorist in the world. King said the Nashville civil rights movement was the "model" for a successful movement. Jesse Jackson and many others called Lawson the "teacher" of the movement.

Lawson was one of the founders, along with King, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. He was coordinator of the Freedom Ride in 1961 and advance staff person for the Birmingham campaign in 1963. He was coordinator of the Meredith march in Mississippi in 1966 and participated in the 1961- 67 Chicago effort. Lawson was chair of the strategy committee for the Memphis sanitation strike which brought national attention to the scene and during which King was assassinated.

He has been jailed for civil rights efforts in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and California and, in 1981, for praying on the White House grounds.

Lawson has remained outspoken and active in fighting for peace and against racism throughout his career. He actively challenged the Cold War and Vietnam as well as the U.S. roles in Angola, Cuba and Central America.

In 1965, he was a member of an international peace team in Southeast Asia, replacing King. He chaired Peace Sunday in Los Angeles in 1982, filling the Rose Bowl with 100,000 people.

He hosts a TV talk show, Jim Lawson Live, which is produced in Los Angeles. He came to Vanderbilt last spring for a panel discussion on race and religion in the South at the invitation of the former Vanderbilt Chaplain Rev. Bev Asbury, who was celebrating his retirement after 30 years at the University.

In 1985, Lawson joined Gov. Lamar Alexander and others on a panel discussion about the civil rights movement. The panel was part of a three-day program at Vanderbilt, commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lawson has served as pastor of Holman United Methodist Church since 1974. He and his wife, Dorothy, have three grown sons--John, Morris and Seth.


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